Arab Identity--A Mirror of the Ebbs and Flows of Arab Unity
The Arab League of States in action in Cairo.
By John Mason/Arab America/Contributing Writer
Arab unity was perhaps at its height in the 7th century AD with the inception of the Arab Islamic Empire expansion beyond the Middle East and North Africa into parts of present-day Europe. Since then, that unity has been broken, renewed, and then broken again by external and internal forces. Despite attempts to keep the Arab World unified, today it is perhaps more fractured than ever.
Early Signs of Arab Unification
Following that momentous event of Arab-Islamic expansion, the unity of Arab populations gradually began to abate. Such unity continued through the Dark Ages, from about the 5th-10th centuries AD, when Arab rulers preserved from oblivion the Greco-Roman tradition of science and mathematics. Arab scholars significantly added to that tradition through contributions in astronomy, medicine, literature, and theology.
A conscious effort to sustain Arab unity dates to the late 19th century. It was called ‘Pan-Arabism’ or ‘Arab nationalism,’ which included the linking of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East into a largely cultural and political body. In response to British and French incursions into the area of present-day Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, pushed for that area’s unity and independence. The UK and France promised Hussein freedom for those Arab countries. However, they reneged on their promise by secretly signing the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. That agreement gave the UK and France control over the entire area resulting in the formation of very weak, Arab vassal states. ‘Divide-and-conquer’ is what this duplicitous act adds up to.
Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali, was deceived by France and Britain in 1916 over an offer of independent Arab States.
Enter Israel: an Initial Arab Unifier
The 1948 establishment of the state of Israel in historical lands claimed by both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people initially led to Arab unity. That took the initial form of a military attack against the fledgling Israel state on May 15, 1948, the day the British Mandate over Palestine ended. Air and ground power was assembled from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Transjordan in an attempt to end Israel’s establishment on land that was equally valued by both the Zionists and Palestinians.
Israeli flag flying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem — Israel’s newly designated capital, so far officially recognized by only two countries: the U.S. and Guatemala.
So, the then-new state of Israel was initially a force for unification among Arabs. Since that moment in 1948, however, three more Israeli-Arab wars have occurred—Suez in 1956, 6-Day in 1967, and Yom Kippur or Ramadan in 1973. Into the present century, Arab countries have become more splintered, reinforced by dictatorships and the continuation of several monarchies, which range from autocratic to quasi-democratic (Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).
A broad grouping of Arab states was formed in 1945, called the League of Arab States, as a regional international organization. The formation of what became known as the Arab League was a direct response to the growing support by European and American powers for the establishment of the Israeli state in lands Palestinian Arabs resided in. The official goal of the Arab League, formed of 22 member states, was to:
…draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.
Including Palestine, the League was chartered to deal with post-World War II concerns of colonial control of Arab territory and its strong opposition of the occupation of Palestine by a Jewish state.
Later Attempts at Arab Unification
In the 1950s and 1960s, with the arrival on the scene of Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser, Pan-Arab nationalism became the new flavor of the day. Nasser’s nationalism was tied ideologically to socialism and anti-Zionism or opposition to its new neighboring state of Israel.
Various attempts at unification among either two or at most three Arab states occurred during the late 1950s through the 1970s. One such moment followed the 1956 Suez crisis when Israeli forces moved against Egypt because President Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal. When French and British forces joined Israel to thwart that effort, the U.S., under President Eisenhower, blocked it—ever since the Suez Canal has been under Egypt’s authority. An Egyptian-Syrian attempt to unify after the Suez incident subsequently failed. Later attempts with Egypt, Syria, and Iraq came to nothing. And in 1970, Libya, Egypt, and Syria formed a Federation of Arab Republics, which disappeared after five years.
Syrian President al-Assad (l.), Egyptian President al-Sadat (2d fm. r.), and Libyan Colonel Qadhafi (far r.) on the formation of the short-lived Federation of Arab Republics.
The utter defeat of the Arabs by Israeli in the Six-Day War of 1967 put a big hole in the Pan-Arab movement. While the Arab people wanted Arab unity, the political reality of that quickly dissipated. Following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egyptian recognition of Israel under the Camp David Accords of 1978 angered many other Arab countries, thus further dividing them. Nationalism and Islamism in Arab countries beginning in the 1980s began to further eclipse any idea of Pan-Arabism.
The “Arab Spring” 2011”—A Missed Opportunity to Enhance Arab Unity and, hence, Arab Identity
2011 saw a number of uprisings, even revolutions in several Arab countries. The so-called “Arab Spring” began in Tunisia as a non-violent revolution and spread more notably to Egypt, as well as some other Arab countries. Some of these uprisings initially had the promise of political reform. Almost as soon as they got started, however, Arab leaders saw the possibility of increasing citizen freedoms as a threat to their power.
In the context of the Arab Spring, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a strong political actor seemed at first to be chance for at least an elective democracy in Egypt. The Brotherhood was initially supported by many Egyptians. It failed because of its overzealous effort to introduce the Salafi ideology of returning to an earlier, militant version of Sunni Islam. This resulted in the overthrow of the duly elected Brotherhood President, Mohammed Morsi, and his government by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in a coup d’état, following protests in June of 2013.
Protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against authoritarian rule during the period of the Arab Spring, beginning in 2011.
Arab Identity in a time of Regional Fragmentation
The once-upon-a-time dream of Arab unity in the form of a Pan-Arab state has been shattered by fragmentation and conflict. Within the Arab world, there are myriad ethnic, religious, national and political groupings. Many Arab governments are autocratic, some are highly fragmented, and a few are failed (Libya, Yemen, and possibly Syria, come to mind). Some are enriched by oil and gas resources, giving them a false sense of security, but many struggle to meet universal literacy and education standards. Others have highly educated populations with no meaningful work for them.
The present American government stance towards Arab and Islamic states, especially its ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. (despite what the Supreme Court calls it), is racist and belittles over one billion of the world’s citizens. Not only is President Trump Islamophobic, but he has also sided emphatically with Israel’s right-wing leadership against Arab powers (with the exception of the authoritarian Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). This includes the official move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, making it the de facto capital of Israel. Recall that the Palestinians also have a right to representation in Jerusalem. Again, such a move is only intended to enervate and degrade the already weakened Palestinian people.
On the American-Israeli front, a story recently broke about newly-elected Congresswoman Ilhan Oman (Democrat-Minnesota), who broke with the longstanding practice that Israel should not be criticized by elected representatives. Because of her support of the Palestinian people, she was accused of anti-Semitism, a completely different issue than her characterization of the right-wing government of Israel (ArabAmerica.com covered this story last week).
Arab American Identity—a Special Case
Arab Americans are a special case because they belong to a traditionally strong democratic society. Thus, they have the rights and freedoms available to every other citizen. Stereotyped images of Arab Americans have traditionally veered towards negative, even ugly. Such stereotypes arose in the context of often unbending U.S. support of Israel, especially during times of the several Israeli-Arab wars noted earlier. Arab Americans have been typically characterized, in the context of their home countries, as undemocratic, lacking in modernity, and as religiously fundamentalist. This neglects the fact that most Arab Americans are upstanding citizens of their various American communities.
Following the 9/11/2001 attack on the U.S. by Arab Islamist individuals, Arab Americans had to ‘lay low.’ Americans mistakenly saw the attack as monolithic, directed from the Muslim Arab World on the sanctity and sovereignty of American life—to ‘just kill Americans.’ Hatred and prejudice were invoked by some Americans to castigate all Arab Americans, no matter how different they in fact are. Despite that, most Arab Americans feel very proud of their ownership of their Arab heritage.
While 9/11 will never completely disappear from the American mindset, it has at least become a slightly less emotional subject than it was in its immediate aftermath. In the intervening time, a strong corps of Arab and Muslim American comedians have emerged. They aim to create humor and satire out of American stereotypes and outright misrepresentations of Arabs. The comedians’ goal is to change typical American false perceptions of Arabs and Muslims. They are especially up against a strong, negative anti-Muslim force, however, in the person of Mr. Trump. Fortunately, he generates a lot of fine material for the comics. Finally, knowing that this particular moment is transient, as an ancient Middle Eastern proverb suggests, “This too, shall pass.”
- Avraham Sela, “Arab Unity.” The Continuum Political Encyclopedia of the Middle East. Ed., New York: Continuum, 2002. pp. 160–166.
- Joel Carmichael, Notes on Arab Unity—Foreign Affairs Magazine, Khair el-Din Haseeb, “On the Arab ‘Democratic Spring’: Lessons derived;” Contemporary Arab Affairs, vol. 4, # 2, April-June 2011, (pp. 113-122); online” 21 April 2011.
- Youssef Mohamed Sawani, “The ‘end of pan-Arabism’ revisited: reflections on the Arab Spring, Online: 7/9/2012.
- Gaby Semaan, “17 Arab Americans: Stereotypes, Conflict, History, Cultural Identity,” Intercultural Communication Studies XXIII: 2, 2014.
- Charlie Kadado, “Kid Reporter reflects on life as an Arab American after the attacks,”
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.